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Is Another Bank Bailout Coming?

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Everything I am reading these days on financial issues points to some serious reckoning soon to come, especially because of -- as the folks at Third Way are calling it -- foreclosure-gate. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in the Ibanez case, along with a growing body of cases where the banks and/or their servicers have been ruled against in foreclosure cases, and even the banks' lawyers are being castigated in court by judges for bringing in made-up paperwork, is causing a growing sense of panic among the biggest banks that hold the most mortgages. Spokespeople for the banks are talking bravely, trying to dismiss the situation as some minor paperwork errors, but everyone who has been paying attention to the situation fears that there are really big consequences afoot.

The plain fact is that over the last decade, in their overwhelming rush to make bigger and bigger profits from trading in the bubble-driven real estate securities market, the banks ran roughshod over the home mortgage and title system that had served this country (and England and many others) quite well for hundreds of years -- and they made a serious mess of it. Because of the way these mortgages have been sliced and diced and sold into complicated securities, homeowners, judges, and the banks themselves are having quite a bit of trouble figuring out who actually owns the note in more cases than is easy to believe. The "paperwork" -- figuring out who owns the note - is not just a little messed up, it is a disaster area.

This wouldn't be as big a deal except that the combination of the housing bubble itself plus the worst recession since the Great Depression (caused in great part by that bubble) has created a foreclosure crisis of gargantuan proportions. Millions of homeowners are in foreclosure proceedings, millions more underwater because of the collapse of housing prices. And because the banks have cooked their books, not wanting all these toxic assets to wreak havoc with their official valuation and their stock prices, they have no interest in helping homeowners stay in their homes by writing down these mortgages to current market levels. So banks are moving to foreclose these millions of homes, but they can't prove to judges that they even own the notes that would allow them to foreclose. Thus you have robo-signers, falsified affidavits, and all kinds of strange things being presented to judges in courts. The judges who are not bought and paid for by the banks are raising big red flags about all this, and thus you have cases like Ibanez going against the banks.

This is a mess not just for the housing market but for the entire economy, as the numbers on all this are staggering, and the housing market really does have the potential to just completely freeze up, which would be an economic nightmare. Our economy has no chance of getting dramatically better until the housing market starts moving again. So the banks are now going to their political allies, just like they did in 2008, and telling them: unless you save us from the mess that we've created (oh, wait, they don't use those last four words, instead it's the unforeseeable "perfect storm", "black swan" thing), we will go under and take the entire economy down with us. The good news for the banks is they are not necessarily looking for a cash handout this time - although it may come to that - but just some legal "tweaking" of this "minor paperwork problem."

If you have the stomach for it and want to learn more about the gory details about the policy side of all this, there are a bunch of good writers you can turn to, including Yves Smith, David Dayen, and Marcy Wheeler, all of whom have put up great pieces worth looking at in the last couple of days. Numerian has a great post I have already linked to a couple times in past pieces this week on the truly scary implications of what is going down.

But my focus, as usual, is on the politics of all this, because the drumbeat is beginning in a big way to bail out the bankers from their own mess once again. Third Way's piece, which Yves, David, and Marcy do a good job deconstructing, is the opening shot in what will be a very focused legislative push to once again bail out the bankers from their own mess. The banks and their allies will try to do this as quickly and quietly as they can, portraying it as a simple legal fix for minor paperwork problems. However, the consequences of this kind of legal bailout are actually far greater in some ways than the TARP bailout, as costly as that was. The TARP bailout was just dollars though. This one, as Yves writes, undermines fundamental property law that our entire economic system is based on:

This proposal guts state control of their own real estate law when the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that "dirt law" is not a Federal matter. It strips homeowners of their right to their day in court to preserve their contractual rights, namely, that only the proven mortgagee, and not a gangster, or in this case, bankster, can take possession of their home.

This sort of protection is fundamental to the operation of capitalism, so it's astonishing to see neoliberals so willing to throw it under the bus to preserve the balance sheets of the TBTF banks. Readers may recall how we came to have this sort of legal protection in the first place. England learned the hard way in the 17th century what happens with low documentation requirements: abuse of court procedures, perjury and corruption become the norm. Parliament enacted the 1677 Statute of Frauds to establish higher standards for contracts, such as witnessing by a third party, to stop the widespread theft of property that was underway.

The memo completely ignores the harm to investors from the bank mistakes and lacks any provisions for damage to investors to be remedied. Moreover, denying borrower rights removes their leverage to obtain deep principal mortgage modifications, which for viable borrowers produces lower losses than costly foreclosures and sales of distressed property. Thus this shredding of contractual protections in mortgages not only hurts borrowers but also harms investors.

So to save the banks from their own, colossal abuses of contracts that they devised, the Third Way document advocates Congressional intervention into well established, well functioning state law. This is a case where these matters can and should be left to the courts and ultimately state AGs to coordinate the template of a more broadbased solution.

To once again bail out the bankers, this time by changing real estate law in a way that hasn't been done since the 1670s, would be a far bigger deal than even the trillions in bailout dollars the TARP and Fed gave these banks in 2008/9. But the bankers and their allies like Third Way will try to present this as a simple fix to some minor paperwork problems. Look, if these paperwork problems were so minor, we wouldn't need the fix they are proposing: the banks would get nicked a little in a few cases where they screwed up a little bit of paperwork, and everyone would go on their way. But they have made a Texas-sized mess of the entire mortgage title system in their haste to make money, and it is time to pay the piper.

What's the solution? We should start with a foreclosure freeze while the government sorts through the mess and the state attorney generals finish their negotiations with the big banks. Clearly, a massive amount of mortgage write-downs to underwater homeowners to reflect current housing prices makes a ton of sense, and would dramatically cut the need for foreclosures, taking some of the pressure off the system. Once those two steps are taken, hopefully the AGs can cut a good deal for the American people to make things work better going forward.

The problem with sensible pro-middle class solutions like this is the incredible political power of these big banks. Here's the deal, though: politicians hate the idea of having to bail these guys out again. If progressives can make clear that any legal changes the bankers are trying to push through on mortgage and title law are just one more big bailout of the big banks, we can win this fight. Let's hope we do, because the stakes are pretty damn high.

Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com